Spy Pigeons and Other Great Moments in the History of Aerial Photography

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In 1858, Frenchman Gaspard Tournachon snapped the world’s first aerial photograph. Photography had only been around for about three decades, so getting a camera in the air was no simple task. Tournachon had to take pictures of the Bièvre valley from a balloon, and thanks to the period’s clunky collodion process, he had to set up a miniature darkroom in the balloon basket! Unfortunately, his photographs no longer exist.

The oldest known surviving aerial photograph was the work of James Wallace Black, who snapped this photo of Boston from a tethered balloon in 1860. He titled the picture: “Boston, as the Eagle and Wild Goose sees it.”

It wasn’t long before the military considered snatching up the technology. During the Civil War, the Union army used balloons to get a bird’s-eye view of Confederate troops and artillery. Although we know that Black pleaded with Union commanders to give aerial photography a spin, no known shots of rebel formations exist today.

It’s easy to understand Ulysses S. Grant and company’s hesitance. Even in the best circumstances, flying cumbersome early cameras into the air on balloons was a bit of a pain. In 1882, English meteorologist E. D. Archibald tried a new method when he decided to go fly a kite—multiple kites, actually. He tied a string of kites together and set them sailing, fixing a camera to the final one. A few years later in France, Arthur Batut used a kite to take the world’s first timed aerial photograph, below.

But as any adolescent boy can tell you, anything a kite can do, a rocket can do better. You know Alfred Nobel as the father of science prizes and dynamite, but he was also a real rocket man. In 1896, he patented “an improved mode of obtaining photographic maps”—which is basically a polite way of saying “awesome rocket-mounted camera.” Nobel designed it so that each launch could produce one photo, taking in the view as the camera gently parachuted to the ground. Nobel sadly died before he could fire a rocket, but his team is said to have launched one. Nobel would be proud to know that his invention blazed the way toward the first images of Earth from space.

In 1908, L. P. Bonvillain became the first man to use an airplane to take an aerial photograph. (The plane was piloted by none other than Wilbur Wright.) Wright was there for history again one year later when he flew the plane that took the world’s first aerial movie.

German apothecary Julius Neubronner found a way to fit cameras onto homing pigeons. Soon enough, the Bavarian Pigeon Corps—originally a team of messenger pigeons—was taking pictures behind enemy lines. That’s right: spy pigeons! Although the birds were easily sniped from the sky and eaten by hungry troops below, Neubronner still managed to snag a patent for his pigeon-camera harness. Decades later, the CIA revived the idea and created a battery-powered pigeon camera. Their mission and its objective remain classified.

Flying spies may not have taken off, but aerial photography still found quite a few useful applications. Not surprisingly, Texas has always been willing to go big with its aerial projects. A 1927 aerial survey captured Dallas’s White Rock Lake in 37 pairs of photographs taken at 4800 feet. Three years later, a more ambitious project used a plane to take a 93-photo grid that covered all of Dallas as aerial photography helped surveyors make faster, more accurate maps of the growing metropolis. These old sky snapshots of Texas are still great historical curios, but they can’t compare to the amazing clarity and scope of modern aerial photography.

Want to get the kind of big look at Texas that a vantage point thousands of feet high offers? To marvel at the breathtaking views you can only find in the sky, watch the season premiere of Aerial America online now or tune in to Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, February 23rd, 8 PM ET/PT.